Why my male babysitter freaks some people out

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 29, 2013

I wasn’t trying to be subversive when I hired a male babysitter this month. But it is apparently something that few parents would do.

Most are too spooked by Jerry Sandusky and the endless parade of other child molesters in the news. These creeps are almost always male, and they almost always find a way to work with kids. So parents aren’t being paranoid about the stranger danger that surround our kids. It’s a very real and totally frightening phenomenon.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Still, here’s what I’m wondering: Have our fears turned us into a bunch of sexists?

Just about every parenting forum across America has hashed out the question of male babysitters. (The opponents always vastly outnumber the supporters.)

John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted,” and the father of a 6-year-old who was abducted and murdered in 1981, famously warned parents against ever hiring a male sitter.

Even our new sitter, whose mom I’ve known for years and a man whose caring and kindness aren’t in question, came prepared for doubt. He showed up on his first day with a photocopy of his driver’s license, one for me and one for the school where he would be picking up my younger son.

“Just because. People want to be sure,” he explained.

And when we sat down at taekwondo class later that day to watch the kids’ routine, he kept offering, “Ask me anything, anything you want,” just in case I was harboring reservations.

I’m convinced that he’ll offer me his fingerprints and blood sample this week.

It’s no wonder. At the kids’ old preschool, the only male teacher confessed to me that he definitely felt a little more monitored and scrutinized because he was a guy.

The other teachers almost never let him take a child to the bathroom by himself. Parents often assumed he was another parent. “Because why would a man be working here in the classroom?” he told me.

When it comes to kids, we are pretty close to being a society that has demonized men. And this isn’t a totally unreasonable reaction. In one government study of sexual assaults on children, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 96 percent of the offenders they studied were male.

So, if you’re going to strap your child into that car seat even when you’re driving just a few blocks, why wouldn’t you look at that 96 percent statistic, remember what you saw on the evening news and say “no thank you” to a male babysitter? All it takes is one undetected pedophile to destroy a child’s life, right?

When I introduced our new sitter — who grew up in the District, goes to school in Maryland and works at his church’s Sunday school — to the teachers and parents at the playground, I got some raised eyebrows.

“Oh. Wow. How did you, ah, find him?’” one parent asked.

Funny, when we went through this routine with the new babysitter last year — the blond, female foreigner (well, Canadian) who was in town for a museum internship — not a single eyebrow arched.

But a man?

I began explaining how much I like him and how long I’ve known him to anyone who would listen. “Wanna see his driver’s license?” I almost asked.

I know the statistics. I spent nearly two decades at crime scenes and digging through documents in courts and social service agencies. I know what horrors men are statistically more likely to perpetrate.

And no one would blame me for not hiring him. Sitter City, one of the nation’s largest babysitting agencies, lets you specify “male” or “female” in your sitter search. Try that kind of sexism in most fields.

I can’t say whether I would have hired my sitter if he’d answered an ad and was a stranger to me. I can say this: My boys have thrived with him in charge.

The homework wars have disappeared, because my older son is so anxious to impress the sitter with his work. They all speak “Star Wars.” They go to the park and throw balls.

I can’t say that I would’ve chosen “Nacho Libre” as a movie to watch with them. But what the heck, the luchador masks they got from Dad’s Mexican business trip needed a raison d’etre. And I do love Jack Black.

Here is the real problem when we err on the side of statistics. By telling the millions of men that they cannot be trusted with children, we are reinforcing gender stereotypes at school, at home and at work.

If men can’t take care of kids, women have to do it. And that’s holding us back.

So tell me, would you hire a male babysitter?

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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